Asparagus

I picked up some asparagus from the store yesterday. It must have been nice and fresh. When I washed it, it produced that satisfying squeak that is so characteristic to the vegetable (one of only two common vegetables that are a perennial, in fact.) Perhaps you aren’t familiar with that particular sound, or maybe you just never noticed it. But that sound, along with the unique odor of freshly cut asparagus, reliably dredge up all sorts of memories for me.

Typical, 1-pound, paltry grocery store asparagus offering. I only started voluntarily eating asparagus as an adult.

The memories are all about early, optimistic spring days out on County A. The boxelder tree would still be just beginning to bud, and the grape hyacinths foolishly braving the capricious weather. Those April days, Dad was up well before any of the rest of us, to hand-pick the acre of asparagus out back behind the house. The process was repeated in the evening, sometimes with Mom’s help, depending on the ages and temperaments of the kids that year.

That acre of asparagus was their investment in our future. With five kids and a firefighter’s salary, setting aside college savings out of the regular paycheck just wasn’t a reality. So, somewhere, Mom and Dad got the idea of planting asparagus and selling it by word-of-mouth to local gourmands and housewives. Right around the time the robins returned, the white kitchen phone began ringing a few times per day, with people looking to put in their orders. Many bought in bulk of forty to fifty pounds, blanching and freezing massive amounts of the vegetable to get them through the winter months. Others bought smaller amounts, reveling in the fresh produce. It was CSA before that was a thing. They never advertised, and the business operated on an honors system.

Shockingly, I can’t find any photos of the asparagus operation. These bundles more closely approximate what I remember, but they look to be about 2 pounds. The bundles we packaged were twice as large, and held with a single beige rubber band.

Seemingly overnight, stalks ready for picking emerged. Dad walked the rows, cutting each stalk one by one, piling them up in old laundry baskets at the ends of the rows. Once he walked the entire field, he carried the overflowing baskets over to the spigot and hose. He sprayed the dirt off the bottoms through the gaps in the baskets, positioning his thumb just so over the end of the hose. The cold water pooled in well-worn rivulets in the gravel driveway, and the dog of the moment stopped for a drink of the icy cold, metallic well water.

By then, we kids were awake and getting ready for school. Whoever was ready first got to work helping him. I remember this often being me; I was both the oldest and the most obsessed with earliness. Dad set up a little workflow station in the detached garage. This consisted of an old chair holding a spring-loaded scale from who knows where, topped by a hospital-issued plastic washbasin. These were hoarded from any hospital visit, being just the right size to hold the four pounds bundles into which we packaged the asparagus. For anyone who remembers, these plastic hospital kits also included emesis basins and pitchers, also hoarded for future use dispensing water into cups next to our beds (pitcher) and as weird dress-up accessories (emesis basins). We were a thrifty, very bored lot.

Dad loaded the freshly-washed stalks into the yellow tub, adding and subtracting a few to get to four pounds. Then, with that characteristic squeak, he gathered all four pounds in his huge hands, holding the ends out to me. I already prepared a rubber band, bought in bulk from the Farm and Fleet, stretching it out over my hands, cat’s cradle style. The goal was to loop the rubber band front-to-back over the damp ends, trying hard not to splatter the dirty water onto my school clothes, while the asparagus noisily settled into position. I don’t think we talked about much, per usual for Dad, and the asparagus provided most of the noise.

Dad stood the bundles on end in pools of water in one of those indispensable wash basins. If there was time, we’d throw the ball around. The best was when Dad would lean sideways and somehow launch the ball into a pop-up, higher than the barn roof. I still don’t know how he did that. After we went to school, Dad set out orders for people, their names scribbled on the grocery bags into which they would pack their bundles. If he was around when they came by, he’d help them load up. Otherwise, the customers left their cash tucked under the scale on the chair.

They kept track of the asparagus crop in a ledger that lived on top of the microwave, along with Dad’s refereeing calendar and other things that were important enough to be stored on the microwave, a patented Bier father system. My Uncle Jim has a similar setup, except the brains of his operation reside on the counter of the bathroom just off of his mudroom. I’m pretty sure my Grandpa had a similar system.

This captures the general essence of Dad’s organizational empire.

Some years they’d harvest thousands of pounds of asparagus off of that one acre, in the brief, month-long growing season. For most of my growing up, they charged $1 per pound. At the close of asparagus picking, the plants were allowed to “go to seed,” forming ferny plants that reached six feet tall, creating a delightful world in which we kids created all sorts of adventures. For me, that particular pastime ended the year I was walking in the field and accidentally stepped into a Killdeer nest, smashing the brooding eggs. The mother was several yards off, trying to lure me away in the uniquely Kildeer way, by feigning injury in the hope that I, a presumed predator, would go after her and not her nest. When I stepped on her eggs, she took flight, and I raced to the house, certain that I was about to be attacked in a a Hitchcockian way. I was afraid to go near the asparagus field the rest of the summer.

Later on, there was the added problem of the geese. Apparently, geese will eat most vegetation but not asparagus. So the six hellions were brought on to keep the weeds down in the asparagus field. I’m not sure how much they helped, but they crapped everywhere and attacked viciously if you came within ten feet of them. Some other time I’ll tell you about how the goose population inspired my brother’s lifelong fear of birds. They were mean to each other, too, always having one goose who was the whipping boy of the rest of the flock, missing feathers where the others attacked it. When the second-to-last goose died off years later, the loner became remarkably docile and lonely. He waited for Dad outside the back door and followed him around placidly. Dad called him Henry, and Henry was officially relieved of any asparagus duties.

We kids were never allowed to help harvest with the retired serrated steak knives set aside for the purpose. Dad said that if we cut the young stalks incorrectly, it’d screw up their continued regeneration for the rest of the growing season. I’m pretty sure, though, that it was because this was a big, years-long gift for us, and who asks someone to help “buy” their own gift? Nope, the task was reserved for my parents, waking up before sunrise to walk the rows of optimistic growth, secretly squirreling away money for the five kids screaming at each other up in the house.

Looking Back

A year ago today, the World Health Organization officially declared that the Novel Coronavirus officially reached pandemic levels. Although various experts and pundits were already saying this, the official stamp “pandemic” seemed to make it all real.

I vividly remember where I was at the time. I was driving down 27th street, going by the GFS–basically a store that sells massive quantities of food. Fearing the worst, I made a sharp turn into the lot. I quickly stocked up on what seemed like the essentials. They were already out of white rice, so I went for brown, a bunch of dried beans, several industrial size cans of mixed vegetables, and a ten-pound bag of shredded cheese. Because I am from Wisconsin, dire straits call for large amounts of shredded cheese.

I can’t say that it really made all that much of a difference. Although there were shortages on any number of things, cheese (shredded or otherwise) was never one of them. It seems like a long, long time ago that we hunkered down, trying to figure out how to leave the house, refueling the car only once in a month for under $20, and spending more time together as a family doing nothing than we had since the last maternity leave. I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect, it really was kind of nice. Sure, there was the overwhelming existential dread, but we played a ton of board games, and now I’ve seen all of the Marvel movies. So there’s that.

It’s so strange to be living through history. All of this momentous activity, and still I’m yelling for people to move their dirty dishes from the sink to the dishwasher. It’s the little things.

Now that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I can look back at some of those early, knee-jerk reactions and kind of smile. Not laugh, not yet. But a sort of a winsome grimace is within my power. My early hopes for a common-good approach embraced by all kind of fell flat. But I’ve learned to find grace in my frustration, calm amidst the insecurity.

We ended up donating the beans, rice, and vegetables. The girls hate beans, and we prefer white rice and fresh vegetables. But we ate the heck out of that ten pounds of shredded cheddar. What a year it’s been.

Shameless

My friend Rachel died a little over a week ago. She was younger than I am with three kids and a husband. She had metastatic breast cancer, and we knew it would eventually cut her life short. But it still took me by surprise. The last time I saw her, we waved from our cars outside of the dance studio and rolled our eyes as our respective dogs went nuts at each other from inside the vehicles. It was too cold to roll down the windows, so we didn’t talk. Not that it would have been particularly meaningful, but there it is.

Here’s what I want Rachel’s kids to know: Rachel will always remind me to be brave. She had absolutely no shame in her game. She always spoke her mind (for better or worse), and laughed the loudest. When we worked together at the clinic, she would bust out Zumba moves in the work area between patients. I believe there was even some floor work at times. She lived out loud.

Here’s the memory that I want to treasure forever and give to her kids. We were at a dance competition as dance moms, cheering on our daughters. Before they started announcing awards, the organizers turned up the lights and blasted dance music into the hotel ballroom. One of Rachel’s jams came on. I can’t remember the song, and I am pretty sure that nearly anything could be Rachel’s jam. She hopped up and danced to the front of the room where the girls sat, hands in the air, wagging her booty, much to her daughter’s embarrassment and the other moms’ delight. Now, I will occasionally bust a move from my seat, but she took it to the next level, laughing loudly and not giving a hoot who saw her. That’s how I’m always go to remember Rachel. Fearless, shameless, brave.

I’ve needed some of that spirit lately as I dipped my toe into the local political waters, where people aren’t always kind and thoughtful. But whenever I start to falter and worry about what people might say, I summon up that memory of Rachel, raising the roof with the girls, under the glittering chandelier of the hotel ballroom, while I sat in my seat filled envy at her complete disregard for it all.

Faint

It’s time that you all know that truth: I’m a fainter. Big time. I’ve gotten to the point where I can at least anticipate it and sit down when I feel the urge. I really should look into more fainting couches to scatter through the house, but they’ve become a bit passe along with the falling-out-of-favor of corsets.

Don’t worry. After that time when I fainted while making risotto (you have to stand there and stir it for a really, really long time), I had myself checked out, and there’s nothing wrong with me other than “cardiogenic vasovagal syncope,” a.k.a., a tendency to faint at the least provocation.

These days, the only time that I’m truly at risk of a full on pass-out is if I accidentally see my own blood during a medical procedure or blood draw. Just for fun, let’s review what can happen if I see my own blood, shall we?

Here is a list of times when I passed out seeing my own blood:

  1. In high school, at the spring blood drive in the gym my senior year. I was 18 and, therefore, eligible to participate. I was also wearing a cute red, polka dot dress with bare legs. When I passed out across the lounge chair during my cookie time, I sort of did an awkward backbend across it, thereby flashing the rest of the gym. At least I didn’t remember it, I guess.
  2. In Genetics class in college. We had to do a finger prick to obtain a blood sample in order to isolate our DNA and photograph our chromosomes. Guys, a finger prick did me in. I remember lancing my finger and feeling fuzzy. Unfortunately, I was not yet a professional at fainting, and neglected to just sit down when I felt it coming on. Instead, I fell to the ground between the black-topped lab tables. When I came to, I was hovered over by the lab assistant and an earnest Professor Perrault offering me water, presumably from the eyewash station, presented in a permanently coffee-stained mug. I declined.
  3. By medical school, I was savvy enough to anticipate my wooziness and seat myself firmly down whenever any potential bloodletting was to occur. When it was unavoidable, I just looked away and was generally fine. Except for during blood donations, which were simply too prolonged for me to ignore. I felt pressured to be a good bimonthly blood donor, and the Blood Center was less than a block from our classrooms. I gamely went, usually having my donation abruptly halted halfway through when I started to pass out. After the third or so time that this happened, I was politely requested to not return, as they couldn’t use an incomplete donation, and I was really just wasting supplies and juice.
  4. I was somehow okay during childbirth, likely because the blood part paled in comparison to the overall horror of the rest of it.

Why, then, did I ever think I could hack it in medicine? For whatever reason, I don’t have a problem with anyone else’s blood, just my own. I guess this isn’t really such a strange thing. I tried to see if there was a word for it, but Google just came back with a lot of sites trying to help people get over the fear of their own blood. Me, I’m just kind of secretly glad to be able to avoid the pressure of donating blood. After all, they DID tell me not to come back…